WASHINGTON – In February of 2010, United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald C. Machen Jr. swore he would, “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Lately, those enemies and the associated challenges have turned up very close to home.
On the heels of corruption-related guilty pleas from former D.C. politicians and staff, Machen was appointed last week to investigate a politically laced, national security leak scandal.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration determined several members of the press have obtained classified information about a range of top secret activities that could have only come from within tight circles of people connected to the U.S. national security community.
That information includes the secret list of targets to be attacked by drones – called “the Kill List” – that President Barack Obama maintains, inside details about a computer worm the U.S. and Israel built to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and details about a new al-Qaida “underwear bomb” that were so specific that an undercover U.S. intelligence asset’s cover was blown.
The issue is so politically sensitive that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder appointed Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, a Republican, to accompany Machen, a Democrat, to “follow the leads wherever they take us.”
Obama took exception with the allegations that the leaks were authorized.
“The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It’s wrong,” the president said. “And people I think need to have a better sense of how I approach this office and how the people around me here approach this office.”
But a stream of Republican lawmakers, including Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, have expressed deep concern about the leaks and have reservations about whether Machen and Rosenstein will conduct a truly independent investigation.
Kyl raised that question during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.
“The leaks came from, and I’m quoting now, ‘participants in Situation Room meetings.’ That boils it down to a very small and very specific group of people … all of whom by definition work directly with the president. We’ve all seen photos of the day [Osama] bin Laden was killed and the people in that room are all people we recognize.”
Weeks before he was selected to investigate the leaks, Machen said in an interview that his office was “one of the go-to offices nationally for national security matters because the breadth of experience and skill of our prosecutors.”
“One of the things that is unique to this office is our prosecutors come up through the local Superior Court system,” Machen said. “So by the time they get to the National Security Section, they will have had 70, 80, 90 trials.
So when they’re looking at a case, they’re looking at it with the real world experience of building a case up. They’re not just looking at the threat – they’re looking at what sort of evidence they can garner together to build a case up to prove somebody’s case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Both Machen and Rosenstein were contacted about their assignment, but neither had any response.
The question for many lawmakers is whether the leaks investigation is designed to protect the Obama administration, considering that both Machen and Rosenstein are appointees of the Department of Justice.
Holder defended his selections of Machen and Rosenstein and resisted calls to appoint a special counsel.
“The need is for us to operate with some degree of haste, some degree of speed and that’s why I picked these two really good attorneys to handle this issue,” he said.
Since taking the job as U.S. Attorney for the District, Machen has been swarmed with high-profile investigations involving everything from Somali pirates and Cuban spies to the pursuit of Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. The majority of his cases have involved slam dunk law enforcement operations and legal proceedings with few national political agendas at play.
Locally, there was mild criticism about foot-dragging on investigations into political cases. But in early May, former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas Jr. was sentenced to three years in prison after admitting he diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in city money for personal use.
Last week, former D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown resigned and pleaded guilty to lying about his income on bank loan applications.
Still ongoing is a federal probe into D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray’s 2010 campaign, which has resulted in two guilty pleas from aides.
“I think things are good in the Washington region. The reality is that everyone has egos, but I do think people put those aside for the greater good. I’ve been surprised at how receptive everyone is, how respectful everyone is,” Machen said in mid-April.
“People may not always agree, but you have to communicate with one another and be respectful of the other person’s interest in the matter. But the bottom line is, we have a job to do and everyone has to work together.”
Between the local, national and international responsibilities in his office, Machen and his deputy, Vincent Cohen, along with National Security Section Chief Gregg Maisel, as well as their respective staffs, have spent long hours wrestling with complex international cases.
In the past two years, prosecutors in the National Security Section have visited more than 25 countries in their investigations of cases.
Machen says the range of cases and their complexity cuts into his sleep. At the top of the list is the “lone wolf” terrorism phenomenon.
“That’s one of the things that keeps me up at night,” he said. “You oftentimes have to worry about individuals. Seems like there’s never an end to the creativity of some of these organizations.”
He says cooperation with national security partners is the key to successful investigations and cases against international terrorists.
Cooperation will likely be an important element in the “leaks” case, because it is saturated with political overtones and may become symbolic of Washington’s political divisions.
At the end of the day, how much damage the leaks have caused is debatable.
“I’m not certain I see the leaks [about Stuxnet] as particularly damaging,” says Philip Mudd, a former CIA Counterterrorism Center deputy director.
“If you look at what Iran has said, they’re under little illusion about where these attacks have been coming from, and the Israelis, I think, … to say they’re coy would be overstating it. They’re almost coming out and saying they’re responsible for this. So I think Iran has probably already attributed this to the United States.”
But Mudd’s view is not universal, and if the heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday is any indicator, the debate and investigation could be explosive.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), read a review of The New York Times writer David E. Sanger’s book, “Confront and Conceal,” which referred to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon as the “hero of the book, as well as the commentator of record on events,” Graham said.
“Somebody at the highest level of government has been talking about programs that I think are incredibly sensitive,” Graham said.
Later after an intense exchange with Holder, Graham complained that not appointing a special counsel would set a “precedent that will haunt the country and this body and future White Houses in a way that I think is very disturbing.”
Graham also expressed concerns about Machen and Rosenstein’s investigative intentions.
“I don’t know these people from Adam’s house cat,” he said.